External Affairs

Crowdsourcing Foreign Policy: Engaging in the Virtual Public Square

Crowdsourcing support can become a process where new ideas are mined and become part of a policy package for difficult relationships.

Digital diplomacy

The use of social media between Iran and the US during negotiations for the Iran-US nuclear deal demonstrated the power of the medium Twitter. Credit: Reuters

Four decades ago, I was inducted into the world of diplomacy. That era now seems light years away in many respects. It would have been impossible to imagine then that in the second decade of the 21st century we would think it perfectly normal to apply the concept of crowdsourcing and the virtual public square to the working of foreign policy. The virtual world of my youth in India was accessed through celluloid, black and white television, radio, vinyl records, printed magazines and books. The appeal of communication lay in a soulful song, or an impassioned poem, or the daily refrain of political speeches, photos and newscasts contained in the ubiquitous newspaper.

Diplomacy in those days revolved around peace talks and secret missions that stayed secret until ready for release. We remember Henry Kissinger ostensibly having a stomach upset in Pakistan and actually winging his way to old Peking. History generally unfolded according to script.

Today, both the real and the virtual worlds are upon us. These two worlds often collide in what is a 3-D universe of facts, half-facts, truths and true lies. The walls that protected the diplomat of yore have come tumbling down and since the dyke has been breached, we are dealing with a deluge from which we are often hard pressed to extract sense and restore equilibrium.

Diplomacy is both an art and science, and like all disciplines, including life, which is the biggest discipline, it is subject to the laws of evolution and transformation. Today it is increasingly shorn of its old aura and mystique, its architecture is one of open covenants, leaky networks, and surrounding static.

It is not that the content that makes for good diplomacy and sound foreign policy has changed very much, but foreign affairs are not seen as the exclusive preserve of diplomats alone – there are many outside the foreign offices of the world  whose ideas provide perspectives that very often escape the  mandarins and their echo chambers.  And the advent of social media teaches us that the 5000-word telegram in today’s world can be overshadowed by a single tweet-storm.

What are the elements that combine to make the 21st century diplomat? Apart from language skills,  intellectual depth, rigour and self-discipline, analytical acumen, pleasant manners, there is that quality that some have called “extraversion” – that orientation towards the real world, that ability to be forward-looking, assertive, receptive, well-grounded and always communicative. To this I would add the capacity to be adaptive, innovative, and to embrace change especially in interacting with worlds beyond classical diplomacy.

Furthermore, it is crucial that civil society engagement is embraced as a vital segment of a diplomat’s daily duty. This is necessary not only because one takes into account the views from the public amphitheater, but also in order to inform, to educate, to refute false news and pilot policy through the “people-sphere”. Finally, to this mix of qualities, must be added perfect pitch and a sense of timing about when to intervene, what to project, and since all diplomats are messengers, where to direct the message.

It has been said again and again that this is the age of digital diplomacy. For diplomacy to be digital requires, as one ambassador has said, that  “we do things differently and develop new skills – the secrecy and exclusivity of the diplomatic bag no longer applies. We need to develop a distinctive voice on an internet crowded with opinions”. The use of social media – Twitter – between Iran and the United States during negotiations for the Iran-US nuclear deal demonstrated the power of the medium and the positive identity it was able to convey especially in the case of Iran. In the words of Constance Duncombe: “The in-the-moment speed of communication through social media necessarily breaks with bureaucratic practices that often constrain communication between diplomats and states”.

Coming from India, I have often reflected on how diplomacy, especially with our neighbours, China and Pakistan, is fast becoming a spectator sport. Armchair strategists, and a thousand schools of thought abound. Primetime television is populated with discussions where such individuals dominate and commando-style anchors steer the debate in whichever direction they choose to see it go.

Social media platforms become soapboxes for all minds, big and small. The atmosphere is surcharged with views that are often prejudiced, voices that are vicious in extreme, and interwoven ‘threads’ that are often coloured with exaggeration and greatly distorted.

In this immediate context, diplomacy to succeed has to be democratic in spirit, which I interpret as a willingness to engage with all shades of opinion. Therefore, while negotiations to achieve solutions to intractable problems require confidentiality and secrecy (open covenants cannot be openly arrived at), policies must be elucidated with clarity and coherence. Policies not thus presented are misinterpreted by lobbies with vested interests or by opposition political parties.

And this is where connectedness and connectivity come in if we as diplomats are to understand the meaning of the pluralism and diversity that all democracies espouse, to sense, as Edward Said said, “the other echoes that inhabit the garden.” Where too many doomsday scenarios and the ultra left and the ultra right run their tournaments, diplomacy must create what the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh calls an archipelago of hope. Diplomats must remain, and I quote his words from a different context again, “stubbornly open to the flow of opinions, stubbornly hospitable to imagined enemies, stubbornly resistant to the floodwaters that seek to grind all forms of life into uniform grains of sand”. We must fight ghetto mentalities, the narrow, myopic confines of imagined histories, seek a cross pollination of minds, the freedom of democratic debate, the jousting of ideas – never to forget the connectivity that ties us with the rest of the human race.

Related to this is that other ‘c’: communication: that rests on openness, transparency and truth. It must involve the imaginative use of technology, including social media. As humans we share the fundamental urge to learn and share (communicate) and prosper. There is productive and revolutionary potential in the sharing of knowledge and information generously and with a sense of proportion and principle. Mahatma Gandhi’s first book, “Hind Swaraj” or Indian Home Rule had, on the cover of it’s first edition, the prominent, unusual, copyright legend: “No Rights Reserved”. We must be activists for shareable knowledge with no rights reserved because once it is in the public domain, everybody should have the right to use it.


Also read: Diplomacy in the Age of Social Media


The virtual public square today is not bounded by cartography-induced frontiers. It is supranational and yet hyper-nationalistic. It is ultra modern in its embrace of innovative technologies of communication, data mining and complex algorithms, it is also entrenched in traditional orthodox ideologies and beliefs. It is the ultimate continent of Circe, where all who are lured to its doors, are levelled in one fell sweep, only to be distinguished by their capacity to attract the most followers, or by the frequency with which their opinions are re-tweeted in the public square. No other hierarchies that may apply in the real world seem to matter here.

There are no choices in Circe’s world but to enter it and deal with it from within. Can we introduce civilisation into this virtual world? We know it can certainly be mined to yield useful data and even creative, intelligent ideas. We live in an era of open government, where transparency is embraced as a sine qua non of good governance. Can the virtual public square become a fertile source of innovative approaches to difficult foreign policy issues, can it enable more space for soft power deployment, and more effective public diplomacy? Yes, it can, in my view.

Crowdsourcing

A few days ago, I tweeted asking my followers whether crowdsourcing was possible for new ideas in Indian foreign policy. There were two responses – both from Indian journalists. One said it was not possible. His view was that not even “Cabinet sourcing” was happening. I think he meant that the system was both centralised and extremely top down. Another scribe asked: “Crowdsourcing foreign policy? In a world where myths are history, tribalism is patriotism and tradition is future?” In India, it would seem, there is cynicism and skepticism about the concept.

Crowdsourcing as a concept was formally recognised a little over a decade ago in an article in the magazine Wired. It is today common parlance in a digitally connected world. Essentially it involves outsourcing a task, or set of problem issues, or policy questions to a designated, well-qualified crowd of people, known and unknown, in order to augment the availability of new ideas and to inject more vitality and vibrancy into the policy-making space enabling effective policy outcomes.

‘Let the people speak’ is the mantra here. A collective consciousness, or collective intelligence, is sought for tapping. Ideas can be outsourced for assessment and feedback, and the delivery of services to the people can also be improved through better explanation, communication and outreach to such a group. This is a two-way communication channel, a sounding board, which if it works well is extremely useful.

To look at a few examples. Imagine the strictly hypothetical possibility of a summit meeting between India and Pakistan, two estranged neighbours and long time adversaries. Speculation on the possibility of a summit becomes the subject of frenzied discussion on social media platforms and on prime time television. Frequently, such discussion and speculation drives up the hype and decibel levels and tries to influence policy outcomes.

Very often the tendency is towards emphasising a negotiating hardline, a “we must not give an inch” approach, and trying to second-guess every move the government might make. It may well be wondered why have a summit meeting at all when it may be better to build a Great Wall between India and Pakistan permanently shutting out the possibility of dialogue forever.

Neutralising extreme views would obviously be necessary as a first step to enable a steady summit equilibrium. This would involve an agile and well-structured, low-key, unpublicised outreach to key opinion influencers on digital and social media and in the print and electronic conventional media world. In simple and coherent terms, the rationale for the summit must be explained, together with the downside of prolonging an indefinite freeze in relations. The people factor –promoting trade, development and people-to-people contact – will need highlighting.

These opinion makers once targeted with such a briefing will then be able to relay the message to their captive audience/followers and help build constituencies of support for a possible summit move. Side by side, buttressed with information provided by the establishment/foreign office, they can also take down the arguments against dialogue with Pakistan.

The issue of terrorism will be an extremely difficult one to surmount in building support for such a dialogue. This is where technological skills in social media deployment or outreach cannot surmount the core importance of the issue under scrutiny – in this case the involvement of Pakistan-based terror groups in fomenting terrorism on Indian soil. The failure to deliver punishment to Pakistani terrorists involved in the Mumbai terror attacks is also a deep-rooted grievance among the Indian people. Here the government cannot be seen as ceding an inch to Pakistan and in the public outreach to seek endorsement for the summit, the guarantee and assurance of holding the line on this issue must be provided.

The advocacy of diplomacy rather than military conflict (the downside of which will need to subtly highlighted) to press Indian concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan, needs to be ‘sold’ to domestic audiences without conveying an impression of capitulation or ‘giving in’. Civil society engagement through town hall meetings and platforms on Facebook and Twitter will also need to be activated.

At the same time, this crowdsourcing of support can also become a process whereby new ideas can be mined that could form part of a policy package for difficult neighbour relationships.

Other areas where crowdsourcing can help is in situations of humanitarian concern involving disaster relief and assistance to a country’s nationals under distress in such emergencies. Digital diplomacy, the use of social media enables foreign offices to locate their citizens in difficulty where other communication methods fail. I can personally vouch for this as I was able to use Twitter to reach out to our nationals who were stranded in Libya in 2011 when western action against Colonel Gaddafi was launched. Crowdsourcing becomes a tool then for mapping the location of such stranded individuals and communicating with them in real time in order to arrange their safe evacuation to India.

The new digital tools of diplomacy are also effective and impactful in building awareness among audiences about the workings of a foreign office, the foreign service as a career, and also highlighting success stories in the diplomacy of the country concerned.

I was invited to do a Facebook live session by the central government’s National Institution for Transforming India two months ago in which some 21,000 viewers joined in and I took questions about a foreign service career from an all-India audience. The session also helped highlight the concerns that many have about the role of women in diplomacy, and the foreign service as a career for women. All this provides useful inputs for the government in planning a campaign to have more women join the foreign service by addressing and mitigating many of these concerns.

Social media platforms are also useful to counter adverse imaging of the foreign office and its officers. As an example I can cite the Bollywood movie Airlift which portrayed the Indian ministry of external affairs and its mission in Kuwait as ineffective and largely unresponsive in organising the airlift of thousands of Indian citizens out of Kuwait during the 1990 invasion by Saddam Hussein. The portrayal was completely inaccurate since the Indian mission and government had actually organised the massive airlift without any mishap. Through social media I was able to trigger a campaign that showed up the inaccuracies in the film’s treatment of the foreign office. The message went home.

Public diplomacy has to be more than a monologue or a dialogue, it has to be participatory; it has been observed that the collaborative nature of public diplomacy is necessary to build authenticity and a sense of participation. Take for example, aid diplomacy. The Indian ministry of external affairs has, since 1964, administered the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme involving education and training of students and young professionals from developing countries particularly in Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia. Using crowdsourcing techniques through social media to reach out to alumni of this program spread across the world, some of them leaders in their countries, to record an oral history of their experience with the programme can be a wonderful public/people’s diplomacy initiative of the collaborative sort. Similar efforts could be mounted for Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan where the Indian government has committed massive amounts of financial and developmental resources over the years.  Such an initiative can also mine data with useful suggestions for improving the program and ensuring its bright future.

Cultural diplomacy efforts can also be bolstered through crowdsourcing. Reaching out to audiences in a foreign country to assess what aspects of your country’s soft power appeal to them will enable the crafting of action plans and communication strategies that will meet the needs of these audiences and also to plan cultural outreach involving dance, music and art shows with artistes from home. It will also help identify stereotypes and misapprehensions that need to be corrected about your country’s image. This is especially relevant for tourism promotion and investment promotion, too.

An efficient government apparatus is one that incorporates feedback about the impact assessment of its policies through tapping opinions of key public personalities. This is a form of limited crowd sourcing but again it involves an interactive mode of policy formulation that is alive to public responses and attitudes. A similar approach can involve outreach to think tanks and academic institutions to crowd source ideas and academic papers on important policy issues to help in the policy planning process, literally creating a marketplace of ideas.

I have been witness to the transformation of the whole art of communication in diplomacy since the early 2000s. There are no trappings to this diplomacy, its companion is the smart phone, it practices the art of instant but measured response, it carries the weight of authenticity which is why its voice carries and is relayed across the swamp of alternative truth and false news. This is wired diplomacy, which cannot shirk transparency, and which will have to be as connected to Silicon Valley as it is to New Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo or Washington.

Crowdsourced diplomacy or foreign policy like Wikipedia can be constantly added to, edited by the citizen diplomats around us. It is the raw stock that then we in the foreign offices around the world have to turn into cohesive sets of policy options and recommendations whose stakeholders are not just governments but the people who helped fashion them.

I do not think diplomacy can ever be like a driver-less car despite all the technological advances in communication that make it a far more technologically savvy, collaborative process than ever in the past. There will still be need for quiet, painstaking effort to build bridges between countries, to strengthen peace, to promote development, to avoid conflict. The soul of diplomacy has not been altered. But today, it wears gumboots in preparation for all kinds of weather, it takes the pulse of the people, and it must be distinguished by its capacity to adapt, to seek out the world beyond its traditional walls, to engage with the madding crowd. For after all, in the end it is about real people with the ability to inhabit both the actual and virtual public square and to be the voice that informs and educates, and listens to the views and voices in both these domains, in a constant interactive that gives and takes.

This article is an edited excerpt from a speech delivered by the author at the United States Foreign Service Institute.

Nirupama Rao is a former foreign secretary of India and was ambassador to the US. She is currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.